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A Fight on His Hands

Since he took office in November, county Mayor Carlos Alvarez has seen his relationship with the county commission go from frosty to downright combative. Alvarez continues to barrel ahead with the take-it-or-leave-it reform agenda that got him elected by a wide margin. The commission, meanwhile, seems determined to resist any change that will diminish its powers.

As county mayor, Alvarez's authority is limited to vetoing commission action and hiring and firing the county manager (the commission can overrule him). A major part of his agenda has been a push to enact a strong mayor form of government. Under the measure he wants to put before voters, some powers, including the authority to hire and fire county employees, would shift from the county manager and county commission to the mayor.

PRO-REFORM: "The fight is certainly nowhere close to being over," says Jose Riesco (right), with Mayor Alvarez.Alvarez believes the change would bring greater accountability to government by bundling authority under the mayor -- the only person voters elect countywide. A petition drive in support of taking the strong-mayor proposal to voters in November garnered more than 170,000 signatures.

Commissioners call Alvarez's reform plans a power grab. In April, they funded a "push poll" to test campaign themes aimed at defeating his agenda. Responding to the charge, Alvarez points out that term limits would likely force him from office before any change in government takes effect.

In addition to opposition from the commission, Alvarez's plan has encountered legal hurdles. In August, a county judge rejected his bid to place the strong mayor proposal on the November ballot. The judge ruled that the change would violate the state constitution, which designates the commission as the county's governing body. An appeal is expected to take months.

Even if they lose, supporters say they will try again, using language that will pass constitutional muster. "This is a temporary setback. We've got too much support across the county for us to stop now," says Jose Riesco, chairman of Citizens for Reform.

A second proposal, dubbed procurement reform, would shift the power to award contracts from the commission to department heads. Alvarez has long argued that government purse strings should not be entrusted to elected officials who may be beholden to lobbyists and big campaign donors.

Opponents of the proposals, including the AFL-CIO and Citizens for Open Government, a PAC created to oppose the reform proposals, have vowed to keep the measures off the county ballot.

Responds Riesco: "The powers that be are showing they will do anything to hang onto their power. The special interests groups just want to keep the status quo. That's what's holding us back from the kind of real reform this county needs."